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Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary give way?
Mr. Blunkett: In a moment. I should explain that I now intend to move through the clauses so that Members are able to intervene at relevant points. However, I shall give way once more if my hon. Friend has a general rather than a specific point.
Mr. Coleman: With reference to the Home Secretary's comments on section 55 of the 2002 Act, does he recall the informal discussions that he had with me, and a number of my hon. Friends, prior to its introduction? My recollectionI stand to be corrected by the Home Secretaryis that we were told that it was not the Government's intention to use the powers in section 55 for people who had just arrived in the United Kingdom, and that we were talking about not 24 hours or 72 hours but, at the very minimum, weeks, if not months.
Mr. Blunkett: I think that during that meeting we moved delphically from 72 hours to a period of months. I have never said that those who have been in this country for months could establish a claim to asylum. The purpose of section 55 was to prevent those who had been in the country for other purposes, on other visas and for other requirements from finding themselves destitute and deciding that this route was the fastest and most effective way of gaining public support in relation to subsistence and housing. We indicated that that was not the correct way in which to do so.
Asylum is about those who are threatened with death and torture escaping from that and seeking sanctuary in this country. We offer that sanctuary readily, but on the basis that when people arrive they demonstrate that they are asylum seekers, not economic seekers of a better life or people who have come for other purposes and do not want to go back home. I am seeking, with my hon. Friend the Minister, to ensure that we show a deal of flexibility within the requirement, so that people should be prepared to co-operate with us. That is not unfairit is something for something, which is the principle that we apply in terms of the welfare provision offered to the indigenous population of this country.
Clauses 1 to 5 tackle illegal immigration and abuse of the system, and clause 2 is specific about the undocumented arrivals that I mentioned. I shall not go into that again, because most people would accept that it is unacceptable to throw away evidence of where one has come from and which plane one arrived on, and that we should take action on that.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I support the Bill and the measures that the Home Secretary has introduced in past years, mainly because of the effects in my constituency: I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said about the way in which community relationships can be destroyed by a feeling that the situation is out of control. However,
Mr. Blunkett: That is a sensible point. We should work with sea and air carriers to ensure that the message is clearly conveyed. We have tried to make more sophisticated the subsidiary ruling on airports in relation to section 55 of the 2002 Act. At one stage, we were almost being asked to provide public address systems at airports to tell people that if they wanted to claim they should do it immediately. That struck us as a trifle odd, but I accept the thrust of the helpful suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser); I believe that it would help people to thwart traffickers and facilitators.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Further to that point, would it not be even more satisfactory if, at the embarkation points, we had copies of asylum seekers' travel documents, which would detail likely points of departure? Even if they destroyed the documents, we would then know their identity. Could not such a responsibility be placed on carriers?
Mr. Blunkett: We are consulting on precisely that point. We are in discussion with Departments that have an interest in the matter. I should like to ensure that such a liability did not interfere with free competition or disadvantage British-based carriers. We should try to ensure that that does not happen. Any such provision would be in conjunction with the purchase and presentation of a ticket and run alongside the visa regime which applies to countries where visas are required.
Clause 6 deals with people's preparedness to give a reasonable explanation. I have commented on that in the context of thwarting facilitators, and that is linked to clause 2. Clauses 4 and 5 introduce a new criminal offence and build on the powers that relate to sexual exploitation, which I mentioned earlier.
The behaviour of those who are authorised to take steps to provide credibility will be important. The credibility of the claim, and the credibility clause, as we may deem clause 6, will enable us to respond to the debate a few moments ago about providing a better, faster and more sensible method of dealing with the initial decision. Adverse behaviour makes a hell of a difference in such circumstances. The countries through which people have passed, the way in which they present their claim, timings and much else will be considered.
I hope that hon. Members will give me a moment to explain our thinking on clause 7. There is disquiet about our holding families in detention centres when their claims have failed and they are in the process of being redocumented or given removal directions. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration responded to concerns about children who are held in those centres by saying that there will be what might be called a ministerial lock. The Minister will not
Some people fundamentally oppose holding families in removal centres, however. Some fundamentally oppose compulsory removal of familiespicking up children and families, putting them on a plane and removing them. Anxieties about that have already been expressed this afternoon. Some people, including some hon. Members, are worried about the withdrawal of public support from those who have been through a lengthy process, including multiple referrals by letter and interview, and a 14-day stay while the family is further informed about what will happen.
Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP) rose
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab) rose
Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way to both hon. Members shortly.
Some people oppose all three measures that I outlined and believe that if people will not leave, we should simply do nothing and accept the position as a burden of a modern, economically successful country. I do not agree with that.
Annabelle Ewing: The Home Secretary mentioned the comments that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration made yesterday. She said that children would be held in Dungavel removal centre for an initial period of 28 days and thereafter, they would be subject to a ministerial review. Does not the Home Secretary accept that for a child, 28 days at Dungavel is 28 days too long? Surely, as a plain-speaking man, he accepts that that will punish innocent children for the actions of their parents. By what means will the Bill exclude the competence and jurisdiction of the children's panel system in Scotland, which has primacy over the matter?
Mr. Blunkett: The hon. Lady knows that the issue is reserved. There has been a massive campaign about Dungavel. The average time families are held in removal centres is 10 days because there are some long-stay cases, but the bulk of cases are dealt with in five or six days. On Monday this week, 38 children were held in removal centres in the United Kingdom. I regret the holding of any child in a removal centre and I want other measures to be applied to avoid that happening. They include encouraging people to be redocumented and supporting them with free return and, when appropriate, resettlement. That is why, in a sensible debate, people cannot simply rule out every possible measure to achieve a public policy goal and then criticise the Government for failing to achieve it.
Mr. Dawson: I welcome the news of progress on monitoring children and families in detention centres. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the oversight will include input from the relevant social services authority with child protection responsibilities? In expressing frustration about the way in which some asylum seekers try to thwart the system, will my right
Mr. Blunkett: First, I accept that social services have a highly relevant and appropriate central role to play in protection and in our education programme. On my hon. Friend's second point, of course I accept that the children are not responsible for their parents' decisions, but neither are we. We have to deal with children and support them wherever we can, consequent on the decisions and responsibility of their parents.
We are considering an issue of fundamental values. The primary concern of parents is the well-being of their children. That should come first, second and third. If it is in the interests of that well-being to comply with sensible and sensitive removal to the country of origin when asylum seekers have failed to establish their claim that they faced the threat of death and torture, they must take responsibility and accept the consequences. Parents, not only the state, must take responsibility for consequences. I reiterate that the state has an important role of last resort. However, in a civilised society, it is our job to protect children and not to give way to, second-guess or replace parents' responsibility for the care of their children.